Back on the Bridge

Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge 1929Stepping back on the bridge

Hart Crane’s The Bridge has eight parts following the introductory proem “To Brooklyn Bridge.” Most of these component parts are broken up into groups of smaller poems, and each one is dense. That’s why I keep lingering.

Some scholarship (which I haven’t read, thankfully) paints a picture of Hart Crane as a self-loathing homosexual, who was a failure in poetry and in life. I resist strictly biographical readings of most poets, and personally I see little evidence that the facts of his life (other than some fairly basic stuff) have much bearing on reading the poems. The poems aim high, much higher than the scope of a tragic life.

I listened to a paper a couple of days ago on Gerard Manley Hopkins which assaulted the same “easy answers” to Hopkins’ poetry. The presenter noted that Hopkins, as evidenced in his letters, was thrilled by Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde and claimed that he could present a persona even more terrifying in his poetry. Scholars, on the other hand, claim that his later poetry is best read through the lens of deep, dark, depression which plagued him in his last years. His letters really don’t support this reading; according to the woman who wrote the paper, he actually seems quite normal other than a few dark moments transmitted in his letters, latched on to as incontrovertible evidence for reading the poems as autobiographical.

The Bridge has nothing to do with self-loathing, as far as I can tell. It seems to me to speak to the difficulty of maintaining a romantic spirit in a modern age.

Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge 1929

I’ve posted the full text of the proem before. It begins with a seagull’s eye view of the bridge, and then descends, mutable “As apparitional as sails that cross / Some page of figures to be filed away.” The proem is a consideration of history “how many dawns . . .” considered in entirely modern terms: “I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights / with multitudes bent toward some flashing scene.” The bridge becomes, near the end, both the source of music and an altar, a threshold which contains “prophets pledge / Prayer of pariah, and the lovers cry / Against the traffic lights.”

The invocation closes with “And of the curveship lend a myth to God.” The curves in the introductory proem are twofold, the curves of a gull’s wing, and the curves of the bridge. Hard cold mechanistic world, and organic sweeping flight of life. But the portrait of the bridge is that of an object of beauty, not unlike Wordsworth’s “Westminster Bridge.”

Much is made of the opening epigram from the Book of Job, which is voiced by Satan, inviting speculation that Crane saw himself as an evil figure. But it is also an image of movement, just as the bird soars through the opening proem; it seems to me to be a gesture of balance through movement. The first words you read are from the mouth of Satan, the last in the proem are a dedication to God. There is a sense of symmetry here, fearful though it may be. The epigrams seem to have a solid place in these poems, not just as an opening sentiment, but as a contextualizing apparatus which sets up the work to be done in each section. I suppose their might be something to thinking that the overarching reason behind the epigram (rather than being an identification with Satan) would be that the book is a story of faith being tested, as is the Book of Job.

Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge 1929

I’ve discussed the epigram for the first section of the poem, Ave Maria before. But I became so lost in that little discovery of the Columbus connection that I neglected to think about what was really going on, as the poem shifts near the end. The first part is a mystic dream of Columbus, with the sea as the prime player as a world unto itself. Columbus sets words adrift in a cask, and not long afterward, the church bells ring: “Some Angelus environs the cordage tree; / Dark waters onward shake the dark prow free.”

Duh! He’s waking up! The first part of the poem is told from Columbus’ point of view, but there is a shift at the end. Sometimes I can be so thick. I didn’t think about it before; the words that follow are in a strange indeterminate voice, with indeterminate pronouns:

O Thou who sleepest on Thyself, apart
Like ocean athwart lanes of death and birth,
And all the eddying breath between dost search
Cruelly with love thy parable of man,—
Inquisitor! incognizable Word
Of Eden and the enchained Sepulchre,
Into thy steep savannahs, burning blue,
Utter to loneliness the sail is true.

Who is “Thou who sleepest on Thyself?”

I spent a lot of time theorizing about it, enumerating possibilities and discarding them. The easy answer is the poet; but that seems rather self important and a bit outside the tone of the rest of the poem. Too simple. It certainly isn’t Columbus, who would naturally follow if it weren’t for the clearly demarcated stanza breaks. Maybe it’s the bridge. But then, that doesn’t make sense because bridges don’t think, or search. I don’t believe that it could be God, because why would God contemplate himself? Another option is that the “thou” and “thy” are separate references, and thus it would be the poet contemplating God. I think that perhaps that’s what it is. For a while, I had myself convinced that it wasn’t the poet per se, but a sort of embodiment of man’s will. That’s still a possibility, but I suspect I was just overcomplicating it. My puzzling might seem odd to those who find the answer obvious, but you must remember I’m used to the romantic poets where the answers aren’t usually the obvious ones.

The poet considers God, separate and apart, and searches “all the eddying breath between . . . Cruelly with love”— as man the inquisitor. The duality of the “parable of man” seems to be something that recurs in echoes of the fruits of Columbus. Man yields mostly by “inference and discard,” and faith though distant, seems close to the poet as he searches for that “incognizable word” and that “one shore beyond desire.”

Journeys begin with the first step, and the hallucinatory intensity of this first section of the poem ends in praise of God, “O Thou Hand of Fire.” And in continuing with the mythic theme invoked in the proem, “Powahatan’s Daughter,” the second section of The Bridge is composed of five poems which each address aspects of the American myth. The epigram sets a festive, playful tone:

“— Pocahuntus, a well featured but wanton yong girle . . . of the age of eleven or twelve years, get the boyes forth with her into the market place, and make them wheele, falling on their hands, turning their heels upwards, whom she would followe, and wheele to herself, naked as she was, all the fort over.”

A naked girl turning cartwheels? It seems to get to that shore beyond desire, one must first pass through it.

Now, I feel I understand it better. I’ll enter the “Harbor Dawn” when I have more time. But for now, I’ll just leave with the thought that if the “incognizable word” was a fools project (as many think it is), Crane stands in good company with poets like Goethe and Byron. Though it’s cliché to some, I really do admire the quest:

Could I embody and unbosom now
That which is most within me,— could I wreak
My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
Hear, know, feel, and yet breathe— into one word,
And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;
But as it is, I live and die unheard,
With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it like a sword.

Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Canto III 97

It seems to me that Hart Crane, rather than expressing self-loathing, was expressing his continuance of that quest for one word.

1 thought on “Back on the Bridge”

  1. Standard critical theory, like standard theory of all sorts, standardly yokes “homosexual,” “self-loathing,” and “sad failure” together, despite the multitude of evidence that one could perform the same yoking just as (or, if one goes solely by the anti-hedonist evidence of literature, theater, and movies, even more) efficiently with “heterosexual” in the first term. I’ve mentioned them in passing, but, if you can find them, I highly recommend Delany’s more optimistic take on Crane: in fiction, “Atlantis” (which imagines a fictionalized version of Delany’s father meeting a fictionalized Crane on the Brooklyn Bridge), and, in criticism, “Atlantis Rose,” reprinted in “Longer Views.”

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